Posted on June 14, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
The open question under center remains for Kyle Whittingham and the Utes heading into the 2021 season.
Since the graduation of Tyler Huntley two years ago, Utah has focused on the transfer portal to replace the accomplished multi-year starter.
Texas transfer Cameron Rising won the job in 2020 and started the first game of the season, but suffered an injury just a handful of plays into the game and was forced to sit out the remainder of the year.
Whittingham turned to South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley, who played inconsistently, and at one point was replaced by third-string quarterback Drew Lisk.
Two years removed from the Huntley Era, another transfer has entered the mix in Baylor’s Charlie Brewer. If he wins the job, it will make the third transfer gunslinger to start for the Utes since Huntley left.
Fortunately, the entire starting offensive line returns, led by First-Team All-Pac-12 center Nick Ford, along with tight end Brant Kuithe, and eight starters on defense.
But in a Division with strong competition from USC and Arizona State, the success of Utah’s season could come down to the play of its starting quarterback.
Rising and Brewer push each other everyday in practice, stimulating a healthy competition that makes the entire team push harder.
The battle for the starting role continues throughout the season, with the second-string player forcing the starter to stay on top of his game.
Iron sharpens iron, and complacency is eliminated.
The end result is a Pac-12 South Championship.
Utah returns over 80% of its starters from a team that ended the season on a three-game winning streak. Eight return on defense and 10 on offense, loading the cannon for another trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
And after the tragic loss of running back Ty Jordan, the team could dedicate this year in his honor and play with an X-Factor that pushes the program to the Promised Land.
Worst Case Scenario
The quarterback competition yields another season of mediocrity.
Rising is unable to stay healthy, while Brewer struggles to execute the new system. Texas transfer Ja-Quinden Jackson and true freshman Peter Costelli see the field at times, but neither prove ready for the starting role.
Though the Utah defense and offensive line exceed expectations, the transfers at running back aren’t able to match the production of Jordan.
At the same time, opposing secondaries key on Britain Covey and Kuithe, shutting down the primary threats in the Ute passing game.
The saving grace is the defense.
Freshman linebacker Ethan Calvert starts every game of the season and wins the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award.
Combined with redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd, fellow junior linebacker Nephi Sewell, and sophomore corner Clark Phillips III, the Utah defense leads the team to a third-place finish in the South.
What Should Happen
Rising or Brewer secure the starting role and never look back.
Oklahoma transfer running back T.J. Pledger and LSU transfer Chris Curry combine with redshirt sophomore Micah Bernard to establish a healthy rotation in the backfield.
The three take advantage of what might be the best offensive line in the Conference, running amok over every defense in the South.
The consistent threat on the ground opens up the passing game, with Covey and Kuithe reaping the benefits. The Utes’ efficiency in the red zone is among the best in the nation, and the turnover ratio is near the top of the Pac-12.
Though the team splits the matchups with USC and Arizona State, it lands in another respectable bowl game that ends with a signature Whittingham victory.
What Must Happen
Apart from getting things settled at quarterback, the transfers in the backfield must shine.
Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore transferred out of the program this offseason, leaving Bernard as the only returning back with meaningful snaps as a Ute.
Pledger ran for 451 yards and five touchdowns while at Oklahoma last year, and Curry posted 145 yards on the ground for LSU, with most of them coming against No. 6 Florida near the end of the season.
The duo’s adjustment to Whittingham’s system might turn out to be a deciding-factor in the trajectory of Utah’s success.
If things go as planned, Pledger could start every game and threaten to breach the 1,000-yard mark. And though his running prowess might be what carries the day, Pledger’s development in catching the ball out of the backfield might be what pushes Utah to a Pac-12 South Championship.
There’s no questioning the experience the Utes return on both sides of the ball.
The biggest question heading into last season was the lack of returning starters, and that appears to have shown its ugly head in the first two games of the 2020 campaign.
But now that those players have a year under their belt—albeit a COVID-shortened five-game season—the confidence on both sides of the ball should shine through.
The sheer amount of returning talent provides a distinct advantage that sets Utah above other contenders in the Conference.
Assuming the situation at quarterback is adequately resolved and the transfers at running back perform as expected, the focus shifts to depth at wide receiver.
Skilled options Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua transferred out of the program this offseason, leaving Covey as the only heavy-hitter returning.
And although Covey is among the best receivers in the Division, defenses can gameplan to shut him down, along with Kuithe.
Oklahoma transfer and former UCLA receiver Theo Howard has been brought into the mix, but it remains to be seen who the second and third threats will be for the Utes this season.
Freshman linebacker Ethan Calvert may be the truth.
Rated as the eighth-best linebacker in the Class of 2021 according to 247Sports, Calvert has the potential to win the Pac-12’s Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honor.
Projected by some to wind up as a 2nd Round pick, the impact he may have on this year’s team could be immeasurable.
The Utes have historically had their most success with strong defenses, and Calvert might be the spark that ignites another run to the Pac-12 Championship Game. Although the freshman missed Spring Camp, it’s not unreasonable to expect him to end up starting in the opener against Weber State.
But from the perspective at 10,000 feet, the play of the entire defensive unit figures to loom large in the battle for the South. Particularly against the likes of Arizona State and USC.
The nonconference slate of Weber State, BYU, and San Diego State should prime the program for a strong start to the season.
The road tests against the Cougars and Aztecs might be hard-fought, but the Utes should win both.
Washington State is the Pac-12 opener, with the matchup favoring Utah, especially at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
The toughest stretch of the year follows: Back-to-back games against USC and Arizona State. Finding a way to win in Los Angeles could be too much to ask, but taking care of the Sun Devils in Salt Lake City should be achievable.
Winnable games against Oregon State and UCLA follow.
The next week against Stanford might be a matchup to keep an eye on. The Friday night showdown on the Farm could end with a Cardinal victory.
Games against Arizona and Colorado, which should end up in the Win Column, round out the year, with a road game against Oregon sandwiched in between.
Barring any major setbacks at quarterback, Utah could end the season with as many as nine wins. And depending how the cards fall, another South Division championship.
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